Weeknote 16: Anonymous? (Week 17, 2018)

This week has been another one split between two end-user computing projects – one at the strategy/business case stage and another that’s slowly rolling out and proving that the main constraint on any project is the business’s ability to cope with the change.

I can’t say it’s all enjoyable at the moment – indeed I had to apply a great deal of restraint not to respond to lengthy email threads that asked “why aren’t we doing it this way”… but the inefficiencies of email are another subject, for another day.

So, instead of a recap of the week’s activities, I’ll focus on some experiences I’ve had recently with “anonymous” surveys. I’m generally quite cynical of these because if I have to log on to the platform to provide a response then it’s not truly anonymous – a point I highlighted to my colleagues in HR who ask a weekly “pulse” question. “It’s not on your record”, I was told – yet progress is logged against me (tasks due, tasks completed, etc.) and only accessible when I’m logged in to the HR system. It’s the same for SharePoint surveys – if I need to use my Active Directory credentials, then it’s not anonymous.

I’m approaching my third anniversary at risual and I picked up an idea for soliciting feedback (for my annual review) from colleagues, partners and customers from my colleague James Connolly, who has been using a survey tool for a couple of years now. Rather than use one of the tools on the wider Internet, like Survey Monkey or TypePad, I decided to try Microsoft Forms – which is a newish Office 365 capability. It was really simple to create a form (and to make it anonymous, once I worked out how) but what I’ve been most impressed with is the reporting, with the ability to export all responses to Excel for analysis, or to view either an aggregated view of responses or the detail on each individual response within Microsoft Forms.

I went to pains to make sure that the form is truly anonymous – not requiring logon, though I did invite people to leave their name if they were happy for me to contact them about the responses. Even so, with a sample size of around 50 people invited to complete the form and a 50% response rate, I can take a guess at who some of the responses are from. By the same token, there are others where I wish I knew who wrote the feedback so I could ask them to elaborate some more!

I won’t be doing anything with the results, except saying “this is what my colleagues and customers think of me and this is where I need to improve”, but it does re-enforce my thinking that very little in life is truly anonymous.

Next week includes a speaking gig at a Microsoft Modern Workplace popup event (though I’m not entirely comfortable with the demonstrations), more Windows 10 device rollouts and maybe, just maybe, some time to write some blog posts that aren’t just about my week…

Weeknote 15: Pyramid training (Week 16, 2018)

This week has been pyramid-shaped:

  • Monday: start work on Customer A’s End User Computing Strategy.
  • Tuesday: work on Customer B’s Surface/Windows 10 rollout (I’ve stopped pretending that it’s anything to do with a “Modern Workplace” because it’s completely technology-focused). Then, up to Stafford ready for Wednesday’s team meeting and an opportunity for dinner at The Market Vaults (great “dirty burger” and real ale).
  • Wednesday: Team Meeting – opportunity to catch up with my fellow Architects (we’re generally working on different projects so always good to get together). Second trip to the Market Vaults in as many days…
  • Thursday: Back with customer B, then over to the Microsoft Cloud User Group meeting in Birmingham.
  • Friday: trying to write customer A’s strategy but in reality dealing with customer B’s “issues” (and politics). Then, spend the evening at the local “urgent care centre” after my youngest son bangs and cuts his head on a wall whilst playing Xbox (3-4 hour wait means “urgent” is a relative term in an under-funded NHS)… anyway, playing on the Xbox is clearly a dangerous activity!

In other news, I finally managed to get my turbo trainer back to Wiggle using the Asda To You service. It’s a simple but smart solution and a great example of diversification where otherwise near-empty supermarket trucks take parcels from stores to the central distribution hub. Advantages include local drop-off for customers, extra revenue for the supermarket and empty truck space gets used (with the consequential effect of fewer trucks on the road). And they’ll take parcels up to 25kg.

I need to wait for Wiggle and Tacx to work out what’s wrong with my trainer and repair or replace now (so no Zwifting) but at least the sun is shining so I can ride my bike outside…

Talking of sunshine, I wish this was one of my pictures but one local photographer/drone pilot grabbed a shot of Olney in this week’s sunshine:

The rest of the weekend will include a road bike ride, then another attempt at the towpath MTB training with my eldest son (last time we attempted that ride a big puncture ended play), checking out a car boot sale as a potential opportunity to sell some of the contents of our loft – and taking my Mum for afternoon tea as a belated 70th birthday present.

I’ll wrap up this week’s post with another Instagram shot… these road markings amused me as I navigated Birmingham’s one-way system on Thursday evening…

Weeknote 14: Where were all the weeknotes? (Weeks 11-15, 2018)

Weeknotes have been a bit sporadic of late. No, not sporadic. Completely missing.

There have been a few reasons for this:

  • Work got a bit frustrating and it’s generally career-limiting to criticise your customer’s (in)ability to deliver…
  • I got really, really busy at work (see above).
  • And then I took a holiday.

The holiday was great – a week skiing in Tignes/Val d’Isère with my family and then a stop-off in Dijon on the way home. I’m told that the reason to ski at Easter is that you’re more likely to get good weather and we did have plenty of blue skies but it also snowed most days so we had a few white-outs too…

After just three seasons of skiing (for me and my boys), my family are now all at different ability levels with my wife being the most competent (if not as confident as she might have been skiing pre-family!); my eldest son bordering on reckless (just wanting to go faster), skiing black runs and even off-piste (at ski school); my youngest turning into a smart little skier, happy on any of the pistes; and me left behind them all (although I conquered my fear of the red runs this year and my technique is improving).

My family always know when I’m relaxed. That’s when my creative side starts to show – I take more photos and I’m inspired to blog. And that’s why my Instagram feed has been a bit busier of late!

Skiing in Tignes-Val d'Isère (Espace Killy)

The return to work was gentle – the Easter holidays, annual leave and my birthday (we get birthday leave at risual) meant a two day week before I really got back into work.

Unfortunately, after getting home, my Tacx Vortex smart trainer broke. And with just a few weeks to go before the London Revolution, I was hoping to up my training. No Zwift for me until I can get it repaired or replaced though – and that means sending it back to Wiggle.

I found the original box for the trainer, packed it up and weighed it. 12kgs. Too heavy (and a little large) for Collect+ so I followed the advice from Wiggle to send it back using another carrier (and reclaim the postage). Unfortunately, I used Hermes. They claimed that delivery had been refused (Wiggle said it wasn’t) and after a week the parcel was back with me. Their customer service was awful (no answer in Twitter, and only standard responses – nothing that actually answered my questions via email). I have been offered my next shipment free of charge but that’s irrelevant because there won’t be a next time. I. Will. Never. Use. Hermes. Again.

One thing this tweet flagged to me – Wiggle’s social media team and the people who look after their email are really not connected…

Next week I’m trying another option because Mark (@TheLongMile) highlighted the option to return items to Wiggle via a local Asda supermarket. To be fair, Wiggle also offered to collect but that would have been using Yodel (marginally better than Hermes but still not a great reputation) and I’d have had to wait in from 7am to 7pm one day.

Right, that will do for this week’s post. I’ll sign off with another pic from my holidays – breakfast at dawn next to Lac d’Annecy was a great reward for getting up at 4:30 to drive off the mountain ahead of the traffic…

Weeknote 13: Change control (Week 10, 2018)

This week has been dominated by two things:

  1. Windows 10 device builds. Lots of them.Several piles of Microsoft SurfaceBooks
  2. Change Control.

The first part is the easy bit. I have an eager team of build engineers, led by a committed and diligent Consultant to help with that. The second part has resulted in more than its fair share of pain.

As the client-side Programme Manager remarked to me, there are two types of change to manage: change that needs budget and resources and agreement; and “things we need to tell you about”.

The changes I’ve been fighting with are certainly in the “things we need to tell you about” category: minor edits to user account information in Active Directory made on an individual user (or small group of users) basis. Such changes are easily reversed but need to be communicated (to users, and to those who support them – so they are ready for any consequences).

Unfortunately, in order to make this minor change (admittedly a few thousand times), I have to complete a form that’s really designed for much heavier changes, submit it at least a week ahead of when I want to make the change (which is not very agile), attend various meetings to provide information, have multiple conversations outside the process to smooth the path of the change, stand on one leg, do a little dance and make incantations (OK, I made the last part up).

And, as one former customer replied:

Change control has its place but sometimes it feels like a lightweight process should be there for the “things we need to tell you about”-type changes. When I completed my ITIL® Foundation training, people said “you’ll breeze it Mark, it’s just common sense” – and it is. Unfortunately, it seems to me that many people use ITIL as a reason to wrap themselves in unnecessary layers of bureaucracy. There’s also a natural tension between those who are tasked with designing new and improved services and those who need to operate services. One wants change. One wants to avoid change. And, where outsourced services are in place, there are commercial reasons not to make any changes too.

Next week, I’ll find out how successful I’ve been. If I’m lucky, we’ll get approval two days after we need it. I’m not adding to my pain by making an urgent or emergency change (I’m not a masochist) but I have recorded an issue in the PM’s RAID log…

Elsewhere

Other encounters this week have included:

  • Night-time mountain-biking in the woods (helping out with my eldest son’s cycling club) – that was fun!
  • FUD from my younger son’s school around GDPR.

Needless to say, I’ll be ignoring the (poorly-written) communication from the school. Why expect me (as the user of the service) to take action to help the organisation tidy up their data when they have clearly misunderstood their obligations?

Now, it’s the weekend. It’s been another very long week. My train is nearly at Northampton and I feel the need to collapse on the sofa before I fall asleep. The weekend will be a mixture of “Dad’s taxi” and Mothering Sunday (helping my boys be nice to their Mum, and hosting my Mum and my Mother-in-law for lunch). Then back to work for round 2 of “change control”.

Weeknote 12: 50/50 (Week 9, 2018)

So, after getting weeknote 11 out early and supplementing it with a “weeknote 11a”, I’m writing weeknote 12 the following Monday morning, on the train, which kind of defeats the object of a weeknote to wrap up the week.

To be honest, last week was a bit… well, I don’t know how to describe it. Busy, stressful, cold, fun (in parts) – and the weekend that followed had all the same elements.

Highlights included a long-overdue catch-up with @DavidHughes, watching my 13yo’s first cycling session on rollers and towing my 11yo around on a sledge hooked up to the back of a mountain bike.

Unfortunately, I also fell down the stairs at home and broke the screen on my Surface Pro 3 (the two incidents were unrelated).

My work was also split between two projects – with a “critical design review” for the supplementary information system built around Microsoft SharePoint and Power BI. The technology is the easy part – getting individual subject matter experts to work together (it’s not four designs – it’s one solution) has been more challenging.

In the second part of the week, I got properly stuck into my Modern Workplace project (part-time has not been cutting it – it really demands my full attention). We have some demanding timescales for the first phase and it’s all hands to the pump. That means I’ve rolled up my sleeves and got stuck into establishing the build processes and workflow. Just like these delivery robots, I wasn’t letting the snow put me off…

I “battled” to the station (more accurately, drove along some gritted roads with a slight snow covering and some drifts at the side), caught a delayed train (so still got to my destination at the intended time) and got to my customer site (which was like the Mary Celeste…), only for the customer to close the site at lunchtime and send us home – but I still needed to image another pile of SurfaceBooks! It was frustrating but it was also a self-imposed deadline – we just need to catch up over the next few days instead.

On the tech front, I have some thoughts bouncing around my head that haven’t quite formed into blog posts yet… again, two halves – one work-related and one personal:

  • One is about the use of collaboration tools at work (like Microsoft Teams) in place of email. Putting the tech in place is easy. Getting people to use it is not. I’m still getting documents sent to me attached to an email message.
  • The second relates to a remortgage. After getting the mortgage approved in principle, we’re into conveyance with a management company in front of a “panel” of solicitors. They phoned and texted and gave me 24 hours to complete an online form (that didn’t save progress and didn’t gracefully handle input errors) after which I had to print it, sign it (with witnesses) and send it off to a solicitor. It’s a complete mis-match of digital (done badly) and analogue. An anti-pattern for digital transformation if I ever saw one…

Right. Nearly at my destination now, so time to sign off. I’ve got some PCs to build before I switch back into architect mode!

Weeknote 11a: A more relaxed pace of life (Week 8, 2018)

Last week, for the first time in ages, I got my weeknote out on time. Indeed, I wrote it on Thursday night, published on Friday afternoon, and then ran away to The Cotswolds.
Restored Massey Ferguson Red Tractor at Vegetable MattersMy wife and I spent the weekend in and around Chipping Campden with great weather, wonderful views, fantastic food and a lovely hotel. And on more than one occasion I felt like I was living in an episode of The Archers (not just because of the restored tractor at the local farm shop).
It was just a more relaxed pace of life in a rural idyll. A place where people are friendly and they talk to one another. And a trip into Moreton-on-the-Marsh showed that many businesses remain closed on Sundays – which is no bad thing either.
On Sunday afternoon, we drove back over the beautiful Cotswolds and the Northamptonshire uplands – then we got to Northampton and boom! Into the chaos of Sunday afternoon the M1, massive distribution centres, traffic, modern life…
It made me think that not all progress is good!

Weeknote 11: The link between consultant utilisation and beer! (Week 8, 2018)

Two weeks ago I commented that I was hoping to see Wales beat England in the Six Nations. We put up a good fight but, in the end, Eddie Jones’ team continued their unbeaten record at Twickenham. Then, this week, Manchester City got knocked out of the FA Cup by Wigan, who play in League 1 (the third tier of English football), so it’s not been a good month on the sporting front for me. Still, I have been enjoying the Winter Olympics!

Thankfully, work has been a little more successful – and my return from half-term “holidays” has seen me get properly stuck into my Modern Workplace project (though I do need to step out of it again for a few days next week). I also had the opportunity to spend some time with Microsoft in an “AI envisioning session” today.

On Monday though, I made the journey to Long Eaton, to hear a former colleague and Fujitsu Distinguished Engineer, Ste Nadin (@SteNadinFJ), give his views on “Demystifying DevOps” at the Nottingham and Derby branch of the BCS. I was pleased to hear Ste start his talk by saying that he wouldn’t talk about tools very much (which is good – because culture is far more important in a DevOps strategy) and even more pleased when he used the medium of Lego to bring his presentation to life! Ste also made some interesting observations on measuring utilisation – something that’s close to my heart as a practicing consultant.

Taking a beer glass as an analogy, the glass may be seen as better when it’s fully utilised. Empty is 0% full, a short measure is 80%, and we really want it to be 100% full.

Some people see consultant diaries in that way – aiming to be 100% busy all the time.

But let’s take another analogy – if a road is 100% utilised, that’s not so good – it’s not efficient. With infrastructure (like roads) we don’t really want to fill them to capacity but instead to focus on flow!

So, are people (not resources!) empty vessels to be utilised (like a beer glass) or more like a road where work flows?

I’d argue that I’m not very efficient when I’m filled with beer – and it’s the same when utilisation is driven to 100% for an extended period too!

It all comes down to wait time, which is a fraction of %busy time over %idle time. After about 80% busy-ness (or even business?), wait time really spikes and, as utilisation increases, the ability to respond to change and priority decreases. At 100% there is no flexibility and it’s difficult to prioritise (or respond to business change/demands).

This is shown in the diagram below, described in Nabil Hashmi’s post about The DevOps Handbook (and it reminds me I really must finish reading The Phoenix Project):

Wait time vs percent busy

When I was a business manager (in my role as a Head of Practice when I worked at Fujitsu), my operations manager would ask me why I was forecasting that I would run a “bench”. I didn’t know about wait time then – but I knew I needed some flexibility to cope with unplanned work – not just a team that was maxxed out on planned work.

A consulting business is never constant – we live in a world of peaks and troughs and, whilst someone suggested to me that, during quiet times, Consultants will drink from the proverbial pint pot and that, conversely, they need to fill it up in busy times, that’s not the whole picture. I’m fortunate that my manager understands my limits, my constraints and that I can’t be productive when constantly running at 100% but unfortunately there are many in this industry who don’t see things the same way…

Right. I’m signing off now for what I hope is going to be a relaxing weekend… back soon!

Weeknote 10: “A week off” (Week 7, 2018)

I only worked one day this week. Or, more accurately, I only went to work at risual one day this week. There was plenty of work in the week though – and a similar amount of travel to a normal working week too!

Monday was a good day. We had our biannual summit at risual and, like the last one, we ran it as a mini-conference (risual:NXT) with a keynote followed by 22 sessions over 4 tracks – and I was responsible for the technology track again.

I also brought my 13 year-old son to work with me. He had a great day and it was fantastic to see my colleagues make him so welcome as he helped our ops team to run the day. And the highlight for him? Holding up the cards to tell me when I had 10, 5, 2 minutes left in my presentation and then time’s up. I went 1 minute over (into my Q&A time) and he was sure to tell his Mum and his little brother when he got home! (Believe me, there are people who are far worse at sticking to their allotted presentation time than me!)

As it was half term where I live, I took the rest of the week off but it was still pretty busy. With a loft conversion planned in the coming months, there’s a lot of “sorting out” to be done in my house and the pile of recycling sacks that I’ll be leaving for the bin-men next week is only the tip of the iceberg. In addition to sorting out my own place, I took a trip to South Wales to help empty my Gran’s flat as she moves into care. That’s when I ended up at a recycling centre where I saw this sign and I really did wonder if the Welsh language is just a joke played on the English (it’s not really!)…

Welsh scrap metal sign

One of the most enjoyable parts of the week was on Tuesday, when I took my eldest son to Derby Arena for a track cycling experience with Team MK. My only previous visit to a velodrome was at Lee Valley, where I was in the spectator seating above the track. At Derby the track is on a mezzanine level above a sports hall so you can stand underneath and really get a feel for how steep the banking is (42 degrees, I believe). Nevertheless, my son went from “never-ridden-a-track-bike” to “fearlessly-hammering-it-around-the-top-of-the-track” in less than 2 hours and I think this could be the first of many trips to a velodrome…

I want to have a go now!

Next week, I’m back to work and should finally be getting into the swing of things with my Modern Workplace project, plus an evening BCS meeting and an “AI envisioning session” with Microsoft. Watch this space!

Weeknote 9: SharePoint as a CMS, with a little Power BI to help visualise dynamic data (Week 6, 2018)

2018 is flying by but the last couple of weeks have been exciting. After a period of working on short-term engagements (which can be a challenge at times), I’ve landed myself a gig on a decent sized Modern Workplace project that’s going to keep me (and a lot of other people) busy for the next few months. Unfortunately, I can only devote 50% of my time to it for a couple of weeks as I need to clear a few other things out of the way but that will all change soon.

One of those “things” is a project I’ve been working on to provide supplementary information to operators in a part of the critical national infrastructure (I wish I could be less cryptic but I can’t just yet – I hope that maybe one day we can create a case study…). It’s replacing a bespoke system with one built using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products, with a little customisation – and it’s been my first “software” project (cf. infrastructure-led engagements).

Basically, we’re using SharePoint as a content management system, receiving both static and dynamic data (the latter via a service bus) that needs to be displayed to operators.

All of the data is stored in SharePoint lists and libraries and then presented to a browser running in kiosk mode. The page layouts then use web parts to either display data natively, or we use Power BI Report Server (this solution runs on-premises) to create visualisations that we embed inside SharePoint.

And, because the service bus isn’t available yet, we had to demo the dynamic data arriving using another tool… in this case, SoapUI populating SharePoint using its REST/OData API.

It’s been an interesting project, not just because I’ve had to step back and focus on just the architecture (leaving others to work on the detail) but because it’s been software-led. I must admit I was nervous hearing status reports from the team about the page layouts they had created, or the webparts they were scripting, and I was thinking “but didn’t you do that last week?” but, once I saw it come together into something tangible, I was really impressed.

Yesterday was our first opportunity to demonstrate the system to our stakeholders and the initial feedback is positive, so that’s a really big tick in the box. Now we need to document the solution and get it production-ready, before progressing from what’s currently just a framework to something of real value.

Next week will be very different: I’m taking most of half term off work but Monday is the bi-annual risual summit, and I’m responsible for the Technology Track again.

Before then, it’s a weekend of kids football and cycling, plus Six Nations and Winter Olympics on TV. So I’m signing off now to (hopefully) watch Wales beat England at Twickenham!

UK Government Protective Marking and the Microsoft Cloud

I recently heard a Consultant from another Microsoft partner talking about storing “IL3” information in Azure. That rang alarm bells with me, because Impact Levels (ILs) haven’t been a “thing” for UK Government data since April 2014. For the record, here’s the official guidance on the UK Government data security classifications and this video explains why the system was changed:

Meanwhile, this one is a good example of what it means in practice:

So, what does that mean for storing data in Azure, Dynamics 365 and Office 365? Basically, information classified OFFICIAL can be stored in the Microsoft Cloud – for more information, refer to the Microsoft Trust Center. And, because OFFICIAL-SENSITIVE is not another classification (it’s merely highlighting information where additional care may be needed), that’s fine too.

I’ve worked with many UK Government organisations (local/regional, and central) and most are looking to the cloud as a means to reduce costs and improve services. The fact that more than 90% of public data is classified OFFICIAL (indeed, that’s the default for anything in Government) is no reason to avoid using the cloud.